Quality vs. Quantity in Study Abroad

U.S. panel's call for a million participants is misguided without more emphasis on nature of the foreign programs, researcher says.
February 21, 2007

Study abroad is hot in American higher education. The number of college students spending at least some time learning in other countries continues to grow, doubling over the last decade, and some institutions have taken aggressive steps to increase the proportion of their students (to 100 percent, in at least one case) who study in other countries. And a little over a year ago, a federal commission took up the cause, trumpeting a plan to increase the number of American college students who study abroad to a million by 2016-17.

"What nations don't know can hurt them," the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program said in the introduction to its November 2005 report, which some members of Congress have made the basis for federal legislation. "The stakes involved in study abroad are that simple, that straightforward and that important. For their own future and that of the nation, college graduates today must be internationally competent."

Few would quarrel with that sentiment, at a time when technology is shrinking the world (yes, and flattening it, as we've heard ad nauseum), American companies are increasingly doing business abroad, and global understanding is a growing necessity for employment, let alone citizenship.

While they might support the Lincoln Commission's underlying goals, though, its method for getting there -- calling for the creation of a federal program that, along with institutional efforts, would more than quadruple the number of students studying abroad over a decade -- has divided experts on international education. At the annual meeting Tuesday of the Association of International Education Administrators, several leading educators said they welcomed the attention the commission's report has brought to study abroad, but challenged what they characterized as its emphasis on quantity over quality.

Leading the charge was Michael (Mick) Vande Berg, vice president for academic affairs at the Council on International Educational Exchange. In a talk entitled "It's Not All About the Numbers: Maximizing Student Learning Abroad," Vande Berg embraced the commission's view that college graduates must be "internationally competent" and that study abroad, done right, can help students gain that intercultural experience.

But too many of today's study abroad participants are in programs where they are left to learn on their own, in the "grand tour" model of study abroad, when "there is a large and growing body of research suggesting that "students learn effectively only if we intervene before, during and after their experiences abroad."

By emphasizing expanding the number of study abroad participants and giving short shrift to the nature of the programs students are participating in and the quality of learning that takes place in them, Vande Berg said, the Lincoln panel risks increasing numbers without producing the desired result. That's an ironic result, he said, at a time when the general climate for American higher education is in pressing harder to prove that academic programs are producing the desired outcomes in students.

To back up his view, Vande Berg cited two studies he has conducted to gauge the skills and qualities that students draw from studying abroad and how those traits square with what employers are looking for. One study, which examined students from Georgetown and Rice Universities, Dickinson College, and the University of Minnesota, found that over all, study abroad participants made more progress than a group of peers who stayed on their own campuses in terms of second-language development and on a measure of "intercultural development."

But drilling down into the numbers, Vande Berg said, showed that students who developed the most were those who spent a moderate amount of time with their host families and with other American students. Those who were completely immersed in another culture (often individual students enrolled directly in a foreign institution) or those who spent most of their time abroad "hanging out with other U.S. students" suffered drops in intercultural development, he said. "What these data show is that there's a real need for study abroad professionals to intervene in student learning," he said.

The other study Vande Berg cited -- a survey of employers' attitudes on study abroad -- showed an inverse relationship between the personal qualities and skills that American employers are increasingly looking for in their workers and those that they think study abroad is most likely to produce in participants. "Employers value study abroad, but there's a gap between employers' vague support for study abroad and the extent to which they think study abroad contributes to the skills and qualities they seek," Vande Berg said.

For Vande Berg, the two studies show that even at today's levels, too many study abroad participants are not necessarily becoming "internationally competent." The huge influx of study abroad participants that the Lincoln Commission advocates, if not directed into the sorts of longer-term, guided programs that are most effective, will not produce the right results, he said. "The plea that I'm making is to not simply blindly send students abroad thinking the policy goals will be met," Vande Berg added. "Let's not just send students on any program, but let's fund programs that have been proven to be successful."

Peter McPherson, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and chairman of the Lincoln Commission, noted that its report emphasized "quality control" by recommending that students should receive grant funds through the proposed Lincoln Study Abroad Program only for foreign programs that qualify for academic credit from the students' home institutions. "The initial way you guard quality is by ensuring that the programs have the support of the institutional faculty," he said.

McPherson said he agreed with Vande Berg that "increasing the numbers and the quality of the programs need to go hand in hand." But he took issue with the idea that "increasing the number means a reduction in quality. "Over the decades, we've grown our institutions enormously, but no one would argue that the growth per se has decreased quality," McPherson said. "If we just worry about quality, we will continue to have a not large number of people who know a lot. Quality and numbers must go together."


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